Hung Out to Dry: Politics Puts Out Wildfire Funding Fix

Hung Out to Dry: Politics Puts Out Wildfire Funding Fix

04 August 2014

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USA — Vicki Minor pulls the phone from her ear, but her voice still floats to the receiver.

“Let them know where that kid’s body is,” she tells a co-worker.

Minor, executive director of the nonprofit Wildland Firefighter Foundation, was trying to find out the location of Matthew David Goodnature, a 21-year-old firefighter from Oregon who died Tuesday while deployed to a wildfire. The man’s father still had not received his remains.

“We don’t know if he’s in a morgue or a mortuary,” Minor says.

One year after a wildfire season that claimed the lives of 34 firefighters, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center, experts fear 2014 could be even worse.

 After members of Congress left for their August recess, 186 wildfires burned across the U.S. on Monday, according to the Coordination Center. Droughts and erratic precipitation have turned forests into tinderboxes, and everything from campfires to lightning strikes have become their sparks.

Seven firefighters have died so far this season, including Goodnature, the U.S. Forest Service says. And with blazes having erupted in California as early as January, this fire season is shaping up to be one of the longest ever.

“Fire behavior is more extreme,” says Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which – through the Forest Service – handles most wildfires. “We’re seeing larger fires. We’re seeing fires where we have more houses and people. That makes them more dangerous and more difficult to fight.”

Yet a bill to overhaul how Congress funds wildfire suppression appears to be dead in the House, abandoned by Rep. Mike Simpson – the Idaho Republican who introduced the measure – and dozens of GOP legislators listed among its co-sponsors, even as infernos raged across many of their districts.

Before their monthlong vacation, neither Simpson nor any of the chairmen of the House Natural Resources and Agriculture committees – two of the three two which the bill was referred – returned inquiries from U.S. News to explain why. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was unavailable for comment, a spokesman said.

“Fire is the only natural disaster that we fight. These fires, we lose our watersheds, we lose the hunting ranges, we lose homes,” Minor says. “These fire seasons are not going away, and for them to not fund wildfires is – I’m just disgusted with them.”

 In the past 10 years, the two federal agencies responsible for suppressing forest fires – the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service – have run out of money for the fight a combined nine times. They’ve been forced to dip into other accounts set aside for conservation or fire prevention, or to go helmet in hand to Congress to plead for extra infusions of cash.

While the Forest Service spent just 14 percent of its annual budget on fighting fires 15 years ago, fire suppression now consumes nearly half of the agency’s annual budget of nearly $5 billion. The Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, meanwhile, recently has spent anywhere from half to close to 70 percent of its budget on firefighting.

“Because we put a higher and higher proportion of our budget into firefighting, there’s less of our budget available to invest in training, equipment, new technology – less money to reduce risk,” says Jim Douglas, director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Over time, our capability to address fires is reduced and our risks go up.”

Here’s why: Under federal law, forest fires are not treated as natural disasters, eligible for a multibillion-dollar pool of money set aside for earthquakes, hurricanes and other calamities. Instead, the Interior Department and Forest Service are compelled to base their firefighting budgets on a rolling average of how much they spent during the previous 10 years.

 Yet as climate change has made forests drier than ever and nonstop development has put more houses in the way of fires, wildland blazes have become anything but average.

“If it was some normal distribution [of heavy fires some years, relatively light fires in others], then we could say it’s a pretty good measure,” Douglas says. “But if our costs keep going up, then the costs are going to be higher than the average of the past 10 years, just because of how math works.”

The fire season now lasts 60 to 80 days longer than in the 1980s, Bonnie says. The amount of acres burned has doubled – from 3.5 million a season to more than 7 million. And the price, as a result, has soared ever higher.

“Every year fire costs go up, we have to keep up, and we don’t have sufficient funds for our fuel treatment activities, preparedness activities, things that can make a difference in the long run as far as reducing fire risk,” Douglas says.

And as fires have grown larger and more frequent, the costs have extended far beyond the ledger books.

“We deal with the fallen and injured wildland firefighters who get killed in the line of duty and injured, and our work has escalated, not de-escalated,” Minor says.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 might have helped mitigate those issues. First proposed by President Barack Obama and ultimately introduced Feb. 5 by Simpson and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., it called for a $2.7 billion fund each year for seven years to be set aside as a cash reserve that the Forest Service and Interior Department could turn to once their own firefighting allotments ran out. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate.

Firefighters draw politicians like picnics draw flies, and this measure proved no different, attracting 60 Republican and 71 Democratic co-sponsors. It was, in fact, “the rarest of rare things here in Washington,” says Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. The bill was “bipartisan, bicameral and supported by the president,” he says.

Yet it never made it out of committee.

On July 10, Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, sent a letter to fellow congressmen warning them not to back the bill because it would “result in increased federal spending.”

Emphasizing seven times in two pages that the measure arose from a White House proposal, Ryan, R-Wis., asserted that the bill would “increase spending and deficits above the levels … in the Bipartisan Budget Act that we passed at the end of last year.”

He offered no alternative, and Simpson himself rebutted his fellow party member’s missive.

 “Every dollar spent on wildfire suppression through the cap adjustment is fully offset, and overall spending levels authorized in the law remain the same,” Simpson wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter to members of Congress. “It’s also worth remembering that, at the end of the day, we are paying for these costs one way or another, whether through emergency or supplemental spending or counterproductive fire borrowing. It’s just a question of whether we will take a smarter and more rational approach to doing so.”

Under the 10-year-average formula, the Interior Department budgeted nearly $384 million for fire suppression last year, then needed an additional $15.5 million.

But that’s where the debate ended. For six months, the bill languished with neither hearing nor vote.

“They think we should wait for God to make it rain,” DeFazio tells U.S. News. “It doesn’t matter how meritorious the program is, whether it’s funding national infrastructure – they think it should be devolved to the states.

“Their districts are burning up right now, and they haven’t taken a proactive approach with this long-term bill.”

 As the August recess approached, Democrats filed a discharge petition, which – if it gathered 218 signatures – would have forced the bill to the House floor. The outcome fell along party lines: 196 signatures, and none from Republicans.

Simpson’s name, too, was absent.

“They haven’t got a clue of what happens in the West when these fires are burning,” Minor says. “Lives that are lost, planes that go down. It’s going to get worse, not better.”

The Interior and Agriculture departments say they plan to continue pressing the issue when legislators return in September. The Western Governors Association has been adding its voice, as well.

“This fire borrowing problem is really an issue that has to be addressed,” says Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the WGA. “It’s so nonsensical to steal money away from the accounts that would mitigate these fires.”

As he spoke, 5,339 acres burned.

The Eiler Fire near Old Station, Calif., has scorched close to 23,000 acres and destroyed eight homes, fire officials say.

A wildfire threatens to engulf a home in May in San Marcos, Calif. The state’s wildfire season began in January this year.

The federal government’s budgeting formula for wildfires has failed to keep up with what it costs to fight them.
Alan Neuhauser for USN≀ Source: Interior Department Office of Wildland Fire

A group of women pause last month after sifting through the rubble of an apartment building destroyed by a wildfire the previous night in Pateros, Wash.


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